In a deeply competitive business not known for magnanimity, top editors, publishers, and media critics explain why Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron is such an admired newsroom leader. Baron will deliver Harvard’s graduation address on Thursday.
Executive editor, The New York Times
What makes these jobs really hard, but rewarding, is today there are only a handful of big news organizations that can play across a whole range of stories. The Post is one of them; The Times is, obviously, the other. And so, you’re talking about getting up in the morning and leading one of the great American news organizations’ coverage of the coronavirus, Donald Trump, the fight to succeed Donald Trump, the collapse of the stock market, and a possible peace deal in Afghanistan. Those are the five running stories of the moment [in late winter]. And if you’re Marty at The Post, you are running coverage of those five stories, and that doesn’t even count the whole next level of stories … You’re doing that at a time when the way people get their news is changing dramatically, from the era of print to the era of the phone, and you have to maintain one while also changing your newsroom to get ready for the other. If you add all that together, that makes for a job that’s really difficult, really rewarding and exciting, but really hard.
He has high ethical standards. He has an unwavering commitment to quality. That seems like a throwaway line, but it’s not. I think he comes in every day wanting to put out the best, highest-quality report that he can — which is hard. Each of us produces a couple hundred stories a day. I think he has a really strong work ethic. Marty works a lot. He works long hours. He looks at a lot of stories before they go into The Washington Post. He’s very much a hands-on journalist and, on top of that, he’s become a very powerful spokesman for the industry at a time when we need spokesmen who actually have done the work. There are a lot of people who have views about journalism who haven’t done the work.
We like each other a lot. I want him to succeed, and he wants me to succeed, but day in and day out, we’re very competitive. If they beat us on a story, I hate it. And if I beat them on a story, I’m sure he hates it and reacts to it. We try to give each other credit when the other one wins on a story, but we’re very competitive with each other. Our institutions are competitive with each other. We want to beat the other. For both of us, it’s an important motivator. It’s good for journalism; it’s good for us; it makes us work harder.
President and CEO, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald
Jack Knight said that he wanted to be known as a guy who printed good newspapers, was open-minded, fair, and opinionated. And I think that just about sums up Marty Baron: He is open-minded; he’s fair; and he’s opinionated. He does not suffer fools. He’s open to argument. He considers it, and then he makes up his mind and moves on. It’s a classic, classic, classic editor’s kind of mind.
Early in my tenure, I had the opportunity to name the new editor of the Herald. It took me about a year to finally settle on somebody. I thought, “This is the most important hire I’m ever going to make,” and I wanted to be passionately in favor of the person who came in. It had gotten to the point where the more I looked, the more convinced I was that I really needed to hold out for the right person. Then entered Marty. He came down [to Miami] after some discussions. In typical Marty Baron style, he came down here only after he told Joe Lelyveld, [then] executive editor at The New York Times, that he was coming down here to talk to me. He’s nothing but aboveboard. We had a terrific dinner. We really hit it off. And then I said something to him [about] a business-slash-editorial proposition that we had. Somebody was offering to pay us a bunch of money to put ads in places where we had never run ads. And Marty says, “This is about the worst idea in the world.” I was dropping him off at his hotel, and we sat there in my car and had about a half-hour knock-down, drag-out argument. Just argued the hell out of this thing. And as I drove home, I thought, “This is definitely the guy. I know he wants the job. But there are some things on which he will not budge.” It was just fantastic.
I’ve seen editors who are collegial, who are really good writing coaches, and others who are just plain old SOBs. Marty was a field marshal. He would come out of that newsroom, and you’d have your assignment; I’d have my assignment; we’re ready to go work. [He] had a sense of the whole and help to shape it. But more than that, he also had such a good sense for the town and what was happening and how [racially] divided the town was. It was really a divided place, and so was the newsroom. There were major divisions there, and Marty didn’t shy away from those discussions.
What is really characteristic, in my view, is his focus on the work, his focus on getting it right, his focus on publishing stuff that is verified and then having the courage and the intestinal fortitude to stick with it. And, on other stories, the tenacity to stay with it, to keep at a story and find out what is next.
What made him just simply the best colleague was that I never walked away thinking, “He’s not telling me what he really thinks.” I always had a very clear sense of his position, his rationale, and I can’t tell you how valuable that is.
Managing editor for staff development and standards, The Washington Post
The Washington Post can be a tough place to crack, even for people who have thrived at other large news organizations. It has a unique, quirky culture. But by the time Marty was at The Post for about three weeks in the early, pre-Bezos days of 2013, it felt like he had been here for 30 years.
Marty seemed to know who we were even at a time when much of the newsroom felt lost, amid endless rounds of downsizing. Within a few months of his arrival, he was in my office and we were talking about low morale among the staff. He said to me, “Tracy, it’s the [expletive] Washington Post. It’s time we got our swagger back.”
Marty believed in us even when we didn’t know how to believe in ourselves anymore. And it was that hubris — or leadership — that transformed the newsroom. People forget that it was before Bezos that Marty decided to publish the Edward Snowden work.
Marty [has] never lost his sense of vision and rigor: Every position had to advance the strategy of transforming The Post from a local news organization to a national and global behemoth. His discipline in holding the staff to high standards — and himself to even higher ones — fueled journalistic ambition and success that many could never have envisioned for The Post.
Finally, Marty is one of the most humane editors any journalist could hope to encounter. He believes in the power of the organization but understands that the organization gets its power from the unique, idiosyncratic, curious, fearless journalists who comprise it.
WALTER V. ROBINSON
Editor at large, The Boston Globe
Former Spotlight Team editor
Many journalists I know would take a pay cut for the opportunity to have Marty Baron as their editor. He cares intensely about journalism’s mission to hold power to account, and he has done so in every newsroom he has led. That was no more true than in Boston.
He was fearless. He played no favorites in pursuit of the truth. His unswerving loyalty was to journalism that makes a difference — and to the staff of editors and reporters who found his ideals infectious. At The Globe, he set standards for reporting, fairness, writing, and editing that seemed insurmountable, but under his guiding hand were not. He took on stories — and the powerful institutions behind them — that few editors would venture near. There were many such stories, but one so consequential that it became the most important story The Globe has done in its 148 years.
On his very first day as editor, in 2001, Marty decided that the Spotlight Team should investigate whether the politically powerful leaders of the Catholic Church had long covered up and enabled the wholesale sexual abuse of thousands of children by scores of its priests. It was a risky undertaking in the most Catholic major city in the country. But for Marty, it was an easy call. He said, “The public has a right to know.” The resulting 900 articles he conceived, championed, oversaw, and edited thrust the worldwide Catholic Church into its gravest crisis since the Reformation.
Early on at The Globe, one reporter cheekily described Marty’s approach as “the joyless pursuit of excellence.” To be sure, he was demanding of his editors and reporters. But when we put ourselves on the line for [him], the journalism was satisfaction enough. For anyone who’s worked for Marty, there’s joy in that.
Director, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School
Former editor-in-chief, Time magazine
It’s no accident that Marty Baron belongs to that very small club of newspaper editors who’ve been portrayed by Hollywood’s biggest stars (in the movie “Spotlight”). His leadership at The Boston Globe and now at The Washington Post has set the standard for excellence and fearlessness in journalism. With his sharp story sense and gift for spotting and inspiring talent, he is the editor great reporters want to work for. Even as our news cycle accelerates, he remains committed to the deep investigative reporting that is essential to public accountability … from revelations on the National Security Agency’s surveillance program to probes of President Trump’s charities, to the Afghanistan Papers, an extraordinary autopsy of an 18-year war.
But it is actually a different adage that speaks to Baron’s distinctive leadership in this unusual moment for the national press. When the president derides reporters as “crooked,” “dishonest,” “the enemy of the people,” and dismisses critical reporting as “Fake News,” he sets a trap that Baron conspicuously avoids. “We’re not at war. We’re at work,” Baron told an audience in 2017, and he has continued, in the face of fierce attacks, to champion journalism’s essential values: fairness, rigor, and deep curiosity about the forces shaping readers’ lives.
Media critic, The New Yorker
In an era when fewer journalistic entities have the resources to conduct expensive and lengthy investigations, or prefer frothy stories and clicks, Baron’s work reminds us why the press deserves to be called the Fourth Estate. When appointed editor of The Washington Post in 2013, the newspaper had lost luster. Under his reign, the paper is again seen as a worthy national rival to The New York Times. As Nixon cursed The Post and Ben Bradlee, today Trump curses The Post and Marty Baron. Under the private ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Baron has had the dollars to expand his newsroom and to launch deep investigations of Trump’s finances and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, investigations that have merited Pulitzer Prizes and shout-outs to Baron.
Nevertheless, Baron remains modest, a man who blushes at compliments. He is a reminder that a good journalist should not get infected with a big ego, should listen more than he or she talks, yet should retain a fierce resolve to treat journalism as a public calling.
These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
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